Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Showdown in Beijing

Virtualpolitik pal Siva Vaidhyanathan was a big part of today's big digital rhetoric story, and he has been posting his reflections about the showdown between the search engine Google and the government of China on his Googlization of Everything blog. Although the Los Angeles Times is trumpeting the idea that "Chinese Internet users praise Google's threat to exit," the New York Times summed up their more skeptical assessment with the headline "Google's Threat Echoed Everywhere Except China."

Much of what Vaidhyanathan is doing in his blog postings and interviews like this radio interview is clarifying two misconceptions that are common here in the U.S. where 1) we don't imagine Google not to be ubiquitous anywhere else, and 2) we still accept the Bush administration's view that privacy and security is a zero-sum game. First, Vaidhyanathan points out that Google has a much smaller market share than native-born search engine Baidu, which offers access its users access to more copyrighted works than the litigation-averse Mountain View company that must abide by U.S. law. Second, Google is citing both threats to its business model and to civil liberties in explaining its risky ultimatum.

Vaidhyanathan has been working out his general "thoughts on China" for a long time, certainly before the attention paid to Google's shift in policy and its recent threat to pull out of the country entirely, if it doesn't get its way. As he explains, however," in his statement on Google's concerns about "Cyber Attack," American news organizations have been overemphasizing the human rights rhetoric in their coverage: "It's commercial malpractice to back out of the largest market in the world on principle. Google must have some good business reasons."

Certainly the rhetoric on Google's official blog about "a new approach to China" uses the language of selflessness that often appears in its official communications to explain its dare to China:

First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses--including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors--have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.

Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.

In one case, Google claims to be defending the interest of other U.S. companies and Western caitalism, and in the other it emphasizes the risk to democracy and human rights advocates of Chinese interference in network security, although it acknowledges that there are only two cases it can points to, both of them relatively minor.

Perhaps the most interesting question is the one being asked by Rebecca MacKinnon: "Will Google stand up to France and Italy, too?"

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